Eddie Van Halen’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

He tapped, he tinkered, he thrilled and he turned the guitar world upside down. Here’s our pick of 20 awe-inspiring moments from the career of one of the instrument’s true legends.

Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen. Image: Fin Costello / Redferns

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Like Clapton, he became a household name. Like Hendrix, he expanded the frontiers of the instrument he played. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, he contributed a world-shaking guest solo that crossed genre boundaries. Like Brian May, he created his own tools to forge his own sonic path. And like Jimmy Page, he was able to weave expressive virtuosity into the bludgeoning riffery expected of a macho rock band.

Like all of these players before him, Eddie Van Halen redefined rock guitar according to a unique personal vision. When it became clear that this exciting player also took the modding of instruments and gear to a new level of DIY obsession – chainsawing through mahogany, swapping pickups, perfecting the whammy bar… trying anything to move himself closer to the sound he heard in his head – it was only natural that he would inspire the ‘superstrat’ craze and in turn, legions of copycat players.

His band broke at an opportune time: with their succinct, hyperactive tunes, Van Halen brought the short, sharp shock back into heavy rock, without sacrificing their musical aspirations. But from then on, they made their own luck, and by 1984, with the album of the same name, they briefly but decisively ruled MTV and the airwaves.

Eddie Van Halen was the most pioneering guitarist to emerge since Jimi Hendrix and his passing in October 2020 has rocked the music world. Here, we present our own selection of 20 amazing guitar highlights, from many, to remember him by.

20. Live solo spot, Live Without A Net

First of all, let’s see EVH in his element. Van Halen concerts were almost an excuse for the bit where the rest of the band downed tools and the crowd worshipped at the altar of Eddie’s guitar technique – luckily, he was among the pantheon of rock gods who could really make the solo spotlight count, as this clip from 1986 concert video Live Without A Net illustrates.

It’s a stunning non-stop showcase of the idiosyncrasies of his dazzling technique, his arena-filling tone and amongst all the divebombing harmonics and neo-classical tapping, it’s a reminder that the fundamentals of rock ’n’ roll guitar underpinned everything he played – he was an entertainer first, a virtuoso second. For the original generation of Van Halen fans, it’s impossible to watch this YouTube clip without mentally overlaying the tape wear from a worn VHS cassette.

Did you know?

The recording of this live show was plagued with audio issues and continuity errors in the edit of this solo spot result in the mysterious resurrection of Eddie’s cigarette

19. Poundcake

During sessions for Poundcake, the lead single from 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, studio tech Ken Deanne left his Makita drill on the recording console. Said Eddie: “He left the drill laying right in front of me as he was going to grab a replacement piece of gear. As I’m sure you know, a guitar pickup is very similar to a microphone. I happened to grab the drill, and by sheer luck it was in the same key as the song. So I asked Alex to start Poundcake again from the beginning, and I used the drill over the pickup and scraped it on the strings for the intro. I also used it for a second or two during the song’s solo.”

The drill, set at 60 cycles, naturally, was stolen on the subsequent tour, but its whirring-dervish revving is the cherry on top of a track that features two tracks of electric 12-string in amongst its Zepp-esque wall of sound.

Did you know?

Paul Gilbert has also turned using an electric drill on his strings into an artform: hear his powertool duel with bassist Billy Sheehan on Mr. Big’s Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song), also from 1991

18. Ice Cream Man

This 12-bar written by Chicago bluesman John Brim in 1953 begins conventionally enough, with David Lee Roth showing off his acoustic chops and delivering its leery double entendres in his whiskey-soaked voice.

But in the second half, we’re treated to a rare glimpse of Eddie Van Halen the electric bluesman as the guitarist rips into a solo which begins with some wide-interval licks achieved with superhuman stretches, before exploring the outer reaches of the blues scale, channelling trace elements of Jeff Beck, Hendrix, Page and Clapton through his unique hyperactive filter. EVH was a fan of Clapton in particular and if he’d surfaced a decade earlier, perhaps a young Van Halen would’ve opted to slung guitar for a blues band… It would’ve been a wild ride.

Did you know?

Ice Cream Man was a showpiece for David Lee Roth and was a song he’d been performing since before his Van Halen career began

17. Spanish Fly

Van Halen II repeated the formula of the band’s debut but dialled the live feel and the charisma up to 11, probably since it was recorded off the back of the band’s first world tour. But rather than attempting to recreate the seismic instrumental Eruption, for his ‘solo spot’ on the record, Eddie stayed ahead of the copyists by turning in a turbocharged 60-second display of flamenco and classical-influenced acoustic virtuosity enhanced by two-handed tapping that revealed even greater depths to his phenomenal, paradigm-shifting style. He recorded the song using a nylon-string Ovation and it was originally suggested by producer Ted Templeman, when he heard Eddie jamming on acoustic guitar at his New Year’s Eve party.

Did you know?

The black-and-yellow Charvel guitar nicknamed ‘Bumblebee’ on the back cover of the Van Halen II album is buried with Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell

16. Drop Dead Legs

This stomping rocker from 1984 was inspired by Back In Black, with Van Halen telling Guitar World he thought of the song as almost a jazz version of the AC/DC classic. “The descending progression is similar,” he said, “but I put a lot more notes in there.”

It begins with a Skynyrd-esque riff before the bait and switch happens, the volume control is rolled up and one of the most swaggering riffs in rock ’n’ roll history takes over. The outro solo is a departure from his usual perfectionism and sees him go with the flow and follow improvised fragments of ideas wherever they lead; it’s a glimpse of the guitarist at his off-the-cuff best.

Did you know?

The swooning bends in the opening drop-D section aren’t performed with the whammy bar – they’re a mixture of string bends and fingerslides

15. One Foot Out The Door

A continuation of the brooding atmosphere created by the hybrid guitar-synth sound of Sunday Afternoon In The Park, the John Carpenter-esque horrorshow that precedes it on Fair Warning, One Foot Out The Door is a far cry from Van Halen’s most uplifting party tune. Yet it’s a dark and intriguing development for the band’s sound and against such a menacing backdrop, Eddie lets his imagination run riot, unleashing a pair of solos that string together some of the most unhinged and demonic licks of his career, including descending chromatic runs that defy explanation.

Did you know?

Producer Ted Templeman said this song was inspired by the pace at which the band were recording albums

14. Little Guitars

This straightforward AOR rocker from Diver Down is notable mainly for its amazing flamenco-flavoured classical-guitar intro, consisting of a flurried combination of blurry right-hand picking on the open E, B and D strings and left-hand slurs on the low E string: “Everyone thinks I overdubbed on that,” EVH told Musician. “Then I show them how I did it. Classical guitarists can do that, but they finger-pick. I can’t finger-pick. No, I definitely cheated. I’m good at that. If there’s a sound in my head and I want it, I’ll find a way to do it. I bought a couple Montoya records. I actually tried to finger-pick, and I’m going, ‘Screw this, it’s too hard.’” Still don’t believe him.

Did you know?

The song’s main riff was played on a mini Les Paul-style guitar created for him by Nashville luthier David Petschulat

13. Top Jimmy

Top Jimmy stands as a great example of how EVH could fry tiny minds even when he wasn’t tearing out mighty solos. For the track, he used a custom Ripley Stereo Guitar – a newly created true-stereo instrument with a Bartolini humbucker that sent a signal from each of its polepieces; the output of each was controlled by six knobs on the guitar’s lower bout.

That’s how Van Halen created the alternating panning effect for the shimmering harmonics on the song’s intro and the part that follows it. The song’s also a prime example of his masterful ability to combine chicken pickin’, flash chord inversions and more into his often-overlooked rhythm playing.

Did you know?

The tune began life as an instrumental entitled Ripley, before David Lee Roth added a lyric about his Hollywood cohort, James Koneck

12. Girl Gone Bad

In some ways a companion-piece to Top Jimmy, this relatively under-celebrated track from 1984 brings together the disciplines of Eddie’s playing into one magically fluid prog-pop-rock opus.

Cycling restlessly through sophisticated harmonic melodies and on into strident ascending chord progressions, washes of arpeggio’d picking, chunky doublestop rhythms, brief tapping interludes and all manner of sound effects, its solo is a jawdropper. Alternating between blazing legato runs, pedal-note ascents, outrageous bends, unexplored scalar territory and more besides, it’s as creatively off-the-wall as anything he ever managed to claw out of his brain – it’s also an amazing demonstration of how telepathic a unit Van Halen the band had become.

Did you know?

Eddie wrote the track by humming into a cassette recorder in a hotel-room closet while his wife was sleeping

11. Cathedral

Van Halen followed the brooding, dark Fair Warning with Diver Down, a hastily concocted 30-minute collection with as many covers as originals and a couple of brief instrumental interludes for good measure.

One of these, Cathedral, is a haunting oddity that begins with soothing chord swells before breaking into a divine delayed arpeggio soundscape that’s about as far from the band’s pool-party roots as it’s possible to get. EVH created the sound with a 1961 Fender Stratocaster into an Echoplex tape delay unit.

Did you know?

EVH broke the volume control of his Strat during the two-take recording: “If you turn it up and down too fast, it heats up and freezes. I did two takes of that song, and right at the end of the second take, the volume knob just froze, it stopped”

10. Mean Street

On their fourth album, Van Halen turned away from the good-time party music of their previous records and the playboy antics personified by frontman David Lee Roth in favour of a grittier, more aggressive approach.

Mean Street provides one of the highlights, on account of its muscular main riff and before that, an astonishing rhythmic intro section where Eddie elicits harmonics with a slab-bass-esque right-hand tapping technique that incorporates his thumb, while simultaneously using his left hand to damp the strings in between hammer-ons and pull-offs and doublestops – resulting in a unique rhythmic figure that’s virtually inimitable, though many have tried.

Did you know?

Eddie once taught Bryan Adams how to perform the right-hand part of the song’s intro backstage

9. Runnin’ With The Devil

The song that announced Van Halen to the world is primarily a showcase for David Lee Roth’s uniquely characterful vocals, but the throbbing pulse of its simplistic bassline is the perfect backdrop for a stunningly dynamic guitar performance.

It begins with a rake of the strings between the bridge and stop tailpiece of Eddie’s Ibanez Destroyer, steals the spotlight with giant ringing chords soaked in reverb from one of Sound Studio’s EMT plate reverb units, before simmering down behind the verses into a southern-rock-esque chord workout interspersed with hard-rock squalls of lead and flourishes of rapidly picked harmonics. Then, for the solo spot, EVH’s godlike riff soars over the mix – all in all, a pretty mindblowing introduction to his talents, and that’s before listeners had even heard Eruption.

Did you know?

The sound at the beginning of the song is made by the band’s car horns, placed into a box and rigged to two car batteries, with a footswitch to turn them on and off. Producer Ted Templeman then slowed the sound down

8. Unchained

There were the solos – so many, it’s hard to see too far past them – but there were also the riffs to back them up. And few of them come close to the monster that is Unchained from Fair Warning, its dashes of slow-cycling flanger selling a boatload of MXR M-117 pedals in its wake.

There’s further creativity on show beyond the main riff – particularly in the solo section, with its stuttering time signature and staccato leadlines – the hint of octave pedal in the outro… and if ever a song deserved an isolated guitar listen, it’s this one. Do it now.

Did you know?

Tensions between guitarist and producer Ted Templeman were running high during the making of Fair Warning. Said EVH: “I get so frustrated at not being able to do what I wanted. I ended up doing 90 per cent of the guitar tracking at four o’clock in the morning with our engineer, Donn Landee”

7. I’m The One

A juggernaut fuelled by pure hormonal energy and Alex Van Halen’s double kick-drum, I’m The One from Van Halen’s eponymous debut is all the more astonishing for the fact that it was recorded without overdubs. From the first breathless note to the last, Eddie practically redraws the boundaries of rhythm-and-lead accompaniment, before peeling off a solo that ups the ante further still.

If the melting pot of chugging rhythms, whammy-bar effects, lightspeed tremolo picking, octave licks, feedback squalls and more wasn’t quite OTT enough, why not add a barbershop-quartet interlude? Oh, you did already.

Did you know?

The band’s debut, Van Halen, was recorded straight to tape in Studio One of Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood, with minimal overdubs to preserve the band’s live feel

6. Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love

This largely two-chord wonder, with its outro screams of “Hey! Hey! Hey!”, was originally intended as a punk parody: Eddie Van Halen felt it was “trivial” and didn’t even show it to his bandmates until a year after he’d written it; it was among the last songs recorded for their debut.

But thanks to the band’s musicality, it trod the fine line between rawness and sophistication to perfection. A case in point being the rapid picking of its cycling opening riff, which sounds fingertwistingly complex until you realise it’s just spelling out three cowboy chords – Am to F to G – and the song’s middle section proves Van Halen could do light and shade in amongst the hard-rock fireworks. A firm fan favourite, it even stayed in setlists during the Van Hagar era.

Did you know?

Eddie doubled the melodic MXR Phase-90-coated solo section with a buzzy-fretted Coral electric sitar, rented from Studio Instrument Rentals

5. Hot For Teacher

Van Halen’s propulsive rhythm section arguably reached its apex with this high-octane blues shuffle from mega-hit album 1984 – it begins with an impossible-sounding double-double-bass drum intro bearing a passing resemblance to Billy Cobham’s equally nuts Quadrant 4 from 1973, then just becomes more unhinged after that.

EVH’s solo break, when it comes, is like a runaway train, a series of head-scrambling licks once again breaking new lead-guitar ground with their splicing of turbocharged rock ’n’ roll and blues vocabulary with Eddie’s own unique brand of intense sci-fi sonics.

Did you know?

Eddie used a 1958 Flying V for Hot For Teacher and Girl Gone Bad from 1984

4. Panama

Featuring one of the most quintessentially 80s uses of pinched harmonics outside of a ZZ Top record, Panama’s irresistible main riff reminded MTV audiences weaned on 1984’s previous singles Jump and I’ll Wait that Van Halen were most definitely a guitar band.

The song’s tremendous rhythm part pulled out all the stops, adding palm-muted picked chords to the EVH repertoire, and it deserved a solo to match: the guitarist didn’t disappoint, using a Chuck riff as a launchpad for some combined bending and tapping horseplay, before his sinuous repeated melodies in the Free-like middle section build the intensity to a perfect crescendo.

Did you know?

EVH’s sports car makes an appearance on the track. He told Guitar World: “They thought we were nuts to pull up my Lamborghini to the studio and mic it. We drove it around the city, and I revved the engine up to 80,000 rpm just to get the right sound”

3. Jump

Upon its release in 1983, Jump was a real outlier in the Van Halen repertoire thus far: featuring an Oberheim synth rather than his Frankenstrat guitar through a Marshall stack, its keyboard line was written around the turn of the decade, but initially rejected by the band. Resurrected and married to a David Lee Roth lyric, the song was recorded in the space of a night and over the following day at EVH’s home studio, 5150.

Upon release, it became the band’s most famous song and their only US No. 1. Thankfully for us six-stringers, Eddie thoughtfully included a flawless guitar solo composition-within-a-composition which, like Beat It, was so technically precise in its execution but so human in its timing and physicality (though, like his Beat It masterpiece, it too was comped together from at least two takes).

Did you know?

Jump’s outro riff was recycled for the intro to the song Top Of The World from Van Halen’s 1991 album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

2. Beat It

After he’d had the audacity to rearrange the future King Of Pop’s Beat It to better suit his sensibilities (he wasn’t getting a fee or credit for it, after all), EVH casually embarked on 20 minutes of studio work that was eventually distilled into a solo that lasted a mere 20 seconds.

But what a 20 seconds it was – Van Halen’s howling tornado of two-handed tapping, whammy-swept harmonics, tremolo picking, outlandish bends and sound effects played its part in making Thriller the best-selling album of all time, and has been imprinted across the fingertips of both hands of generations of rock-loving guitarists ever since.

Did you know?

Eddie Van Halen subsequently heard Beat It in a record store and heard someone in front of him say, “Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.” The guitarist tapped him on the shoulder and said, “That is me!”

1. Eruption

Incredibly, EVH’s calling card – the minute and 43 seconds of molten guitar lava we all know and love – only made it onto the band’s debut album because producer Ted Templeman happened to walk by when the guitarist was practising his solo spot for a gig on the weekend and suggested that they put it on tape. Eddie duly obliged, recording two or three takes and keeping the one that “seemed to flow”.

We’re now so familiar with its once-spectacular twists and turns that it’s easy to be blasé about the impact that Eruption had on the guitar-playing world, but it really did send a generation of players scurrying off to their garages, bedrooms and practice rooms to plug in, stare at their guitar necks in disbelief and try and figure out what the hell they’d just witnessed.

Though many of these shellshocked players didn’t really think about it at the time, his innovative tone was almost as important as the playing. Eruption was played on Eddie’s Frankenstrat, tuned down a half-step, through his MXR Phase 90, with an Echoplex and a Univox EC-80 echo unit (housed in an old WWII bomb casing), into his 1968 Marshall 1959 Super Lead – a unique rig.

Eruption announced EVH as frighteningly accomplished – a complete player, in terms of tone, technique, showmanship, everything – but in truth, he didn’t stand still. His style developed in major ways in the years that followed; most notably, he developed his combination of harmonics and tapping (the so-called ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ harmonics technique) and took that innovation further than anyone before him.

Understandably, even 43 years on from when it was recorded, for many, it still represents the pinnacle of electric guitar playing. And really, hearing it again with fresh ears, it’s hard to argue.

Did you know?

EVH was critical of the recording, telling Guitar World: “Whenever I hear it, I always think, ‘Man, I could have played that better’”

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